Reward and punishment act as distinct factors in guiding behavior

Cognition. 2015 Jun;139:154-67. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.03.005. Epub 2015 Mar 28.


Behavior rests on the experience of reinforcement and punishment. It has been unclear whether reinforcement and punishment act as oppositely valenced components of a single behavioral factor, or whether these two kinds of outcomes play fundamentally distinct behavioral roles. To this end, we varied the magnitude of a reward or a penalty experienced following a choice using monetary tokens. The outcome of each trial was independent of the outcome of the previous trial, which enabled us to isolate and study the effect on behavior of each outcome magnitude in single trials. We found that a reward led to a repetition of the previous choice, whereas a penalty led to an avoidance of the previous choice. Surprisingly, the effects of the reward magnitude and the penalty magnitude revealed a pronounced asymmetry. The choice repetition effect of a reward scaled with the magnitude of the reward. In a marked contrast, the avoidance effect of a penalty was flat, not influenced by the magnitude of the penalty. These effects were mechanistically described using a reinforcement learning model after the model was updated to account for the penalty-based asymmetry. The asymmetry in the effects of the reward magnitude and the punishment magnitude was so striking that it is difficult to conceive that one factor is just a weighted or transformed form of the other factor. Instead, the data suggest that rewards and penalties are fundamentally distinct factors in governing behavior.

Keywords: Gain; Instrumental (operant) behavior; Law of effect; Loss; Penalty; Reinforcement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adolescent
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Punishment*
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult